29 April 2011

India 2011

Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, Rishikesh

India is a country of near misses. Just watch the chaotic traffic anywhere. A truck overtaken by two cars abreast of each other, a cow coming in the opposite direction, people courting death by walking along the roadside, yet, somehow, very few get hurt. Nobody loses their temper. Life just moves on in the maelstrom of hyperactivity. Ahimsa, non-violence, the underlying foundation of Hinduism.

Or, on a more esoteric level, discussing yoga philosophy in an ashram, you get the undeniable logic of the process, but nobody, except, perhaps, their revered guru, gets what the end game ‘samadhi’ really is; enlightenment, bliss, the realisation that ‘thou art that’ – that ‘god’ and ‘I’ are one and the same. Thankfully the teachers were honest enough on this.
So, this is an unusual diary entry, a visit to Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, an ashram and the HQ of the Association of Himalayan Yoga Meditation Societies International (AHYMSIN), a tradition established by the now deceased Sri Swami Rama and the association founded by Swami Veda Bharati, one of his disciples.
Situated in the foothills of the Himalaya, close to Rishikesh, about 200km north of Delhi, this was to be an interesting experience.

19 March 2011

Into pre dawn Delhi, arriving at the new Indira Gandhi International Airport, and a fairly seamless transit through passport control (interesting wall mounted giant hand mudras as decoration) and customs. Even the luggage came through fairly quickly. Mr Lal, a familiar face from Welcome Travels, was waiting in arrivals and a speedy transit around the new ring road system (finished for the recent Commonwealth Games) brought me to the newly constructed Country Inn in the sprawling industrial suburb of Sahibabad in East Delhi. Owned by Carlson USA, this is one of a developing chain of ‘5*’ vegetarian only hotels, and proved to be a comfortable and efficient stop off whilst waiting for my fellow travellers/yogis who are to join me later.
Delhi was not at it’s best in the early morning, however. It’s hot and dry at this time of the year, with light winds, so the smog of pollution was heavy, creating a low grey toxic mist over the city outskirts with the pungent smell of decay intensifying as we crossed the various major rivers around the city. Not a great welcome for the new visitor to India, along with the usual sights of people sleeping on the streets, the piles of rubbish everywhere, and the chaotic driving style of the locals. But this is still a fascinating place to visit, and you quickly get inured to the more negative aspects as soon as you receive the cordial welcome that most of the locals are eager to extend to you.
I enjoyed a day of rest, some yoga, some study (the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, just in case you were interested!), and then collected by Sunny Wattal, the son of Ramesh, owner of Welcome Travels in Delhi and with whom I had previously enjoyed a great trip to Ladakh a few years ago.
As we travelled through the southern outskirts of this vast city, we could see signs everywhere of the preparations being made for Holi Day, a Hindu celebration of some significance, today being ‘Little Holi’, with some splashes of coloured paint appearing on young men everywhere and the devout ladies building pyres to ignite early evening in memory of the Holi legend. We passed the huge Hare Krishna Temple, although it was closed for a pre Holi puja.
A pleasant dinner with the Wattals, in a Punjabi restaurant amidst Delhi’s software district. All washed down with a ‘strong’ version of Kingfisher, yum.


A nice start to the day, with yoga as the day broke over the sprawl of East Delhi, the pollution seeming lighter than yesterday and traffic flow much reduced as it’s Holi Day and a major day of celebration for Hindus, particularly followers of Krishna.
Eager to see some of the celebrations for myself, I hired a taxi to take me into some of the local districts to witness this colourful event. And, it is, quite literally colourful…this is the festival where boys and men get covered in paint of all hues, firstly as powder liberally thrown over them by their friends and neighbours, and often then splashed with water (little water bombs raining down from the upper storeys, or young boys with water pistols). The hotel manager strongly recommended that I didn’t walk to observe the proceedings myself, I thought because they didn’t want me to get covered in paint, but once I was out in the taxi I could see the real reason…gangs of youths, many under the influence of alcohol or drugs, covered in paint and clearly having a great time, but a rather daunting prospect for an unaccompanied Englishman sporting a camera. The driver was careful to lock the doors as we passed through some of the narrower streets…

Holi celebrations in Ghaziabad
He was no angel, however. He stopped to buy a couple of glasses of sugar cane syrup (freshly crushed by a young lad through a petrol driven wringer) mixed with water. I took a sip but declined the rest (local water…!) before the driver asked for a couple of minutes to have a smoke with one of his mates. Not completely innocent, I could see that they were having a good blast on a joint, so I prevailed on him to ‘drive slowly’ on our return to the hotel. We toured another couple of districts where the scene was pretty much the same…the men misbehaving (but not really in any threatening way), the female of our species mostly out of sight and probably not looking forward to wash day!
An interesting excursion.
The yoga group I was to travel to the ashram arrived this afternoon, and we quickly set off to visit the enormous Hindu temple of Akshardham, about 10km away and close to the Commonwealth Games accommodation centre and the rather pungent Yamuna River east of Delhi. A massive edifice to the Hindu gods, with fountains and gardens surrounding the large mandir, and swamped with people enjoying Holi.


A full tour of Delhi today (although note that any of the major monuments and museums are closed on Mondays), first visiting the mosque and mausoleum of Humayun, just east of New Delhi’s centre, then south west to visit the tower of Qutb MinarIt is the world's tallest brick minaret with a height of 72m (construction commenced by Qutb-ud-din Aibak who won Delhi from the Prithviraj under Muhammad of Ghor as his commander in chief, and finished by Iltutmish). Then after a quick lunch, through New Delhi’s heart (India Gate, etc) before an entertaining rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s old town.

Humayun's Tomb
Qutb Minar, Delhi
Qutb Minar, Delhi
Yogis at Qutb Minar
Tuesday and ten days beyond…

An early start this morning, catching the Delhi to Haridwar ‘express’ train taking us north east and covering 200km in about four hours, crossing uninspiring farmland producing wheat, maize and progressively more sugar cane as we got further north, the landscape only broken by the many brick kilns that seem to appear at regular intervals.
We travelled ‘second class’ – comfortable enough, with constant ‘on board refreshment’ in the form of free tea, juice and biscuits. Pleasant enough as long as you don’t need the loos!

The Ganges at Haridwar
We were met at Haridwar by the ashram people and we were swiftly into Rishikesh, passing the giant statue of Shiva that sits on the side of the Ganges river and overlooking the ghats that host the periodic Kumbha Mela Festival and the nightly aarti, an offering to the scared river ‘Ganga’.
We travelled through forested country, hillier now, with road signs imploring us to ‘give way to elephants’ as we passed through a national park area, before entering the calm of the ashram, a place of learning and reflection for the more spiritually minded, and yoga aficionados wanting to improve their practice.
Set in beautiful gardens, giant bushes of bougainvillea greeting us beyond the reception area and the Himalayan foothills immediately to our north, the modern bungalow accommodation nestled below us. Comfy, but fairly basic.

Stumpy by the Ganges at Rishikesh
So what am I doing here?
Well, having just retired from a busy and often stressful career, fired by an interest in the physical benefits to be achieved through yoga asanas – flexibility and relaxation – and invited to join a group of other yoga students by my teacher Mandy, I thought that this would be a good way of de-stressing and getting a deeper knowledge of yoga in its wider context, the underlying philosophy with more concentrated practice too.
I suppose what I hadn’t realised was that there would be an almost metronomic existence for the next 10 days. Bells to wake you up at 0415, morning prayers (recitations from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-gita in the ancient language of Sanskrit) at 0500, a session of almost two hours of ‘freeing limbs and stimulating glands’ (really good and highly beneficial), ending in deep relaxation, before a hour of (attempted) meditation at 0730 before breakfast at 0830. Now you try sitting absolutely still and concentrating on nothing but your breath for an hour…

Our ashram in Rishikesh
Later in the day, lectures on the philosophical underpinnings of yoga (the Bhagavad-gita, Patanjali’s yoga sutras) and all meals preceded by prayers and the totally vegetarian diet consumed whilst seated on the floor of a fairly spartan dining hall. And if all that wasn’t enough, more sessions in the afternoon, exploring, variously, different methods of controlling the breath (pranayama), another hour and a half of more strenuous physical yoga postures (asana) before further relaxation and meditation practice. Dinner at 1900, another lecture at 2000 and then evening prayers at 2100.
But there was time to ‘stand and stare’ too, usually in the middle part of the day when I studiously avoided the class delivered by Swami Veda Bharati, the spiritual head of the ashram, covering various commentaries on the classic Indian spiritual text, the Bhagavad-gita.
Personally, I wasn’t prepared for this, only just reading the ‘Gita’ for the first time in my life (if you’re interested, pick up a copy of Eknath Easwaran’s commentary on it), and not ready to plumb its depths. Nor did I like the reverential deference shown to him by the students here and his rather aloof personal style. I didn’t warm to him at all, so cut him out of my time in the ashram.
But, some of the other lecturers were brilliant, and the yoga & breathing practice, both designed to set you up for meditation, generally first rate. I’ll not be demonstrating head stands by the way…all the work was on classic asanas and perfecting the movements.

Sikh temple at Laxman Jhula
The River Ganges at Rishikesh
Aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges
Yoga group in Rishikesh
There were several side trips during the stay. Into Rishikesh itself one afternoon to visit the large Sikh temple at Laxman Jhula, followed by the evening aarti ritual on the banks of the Ganges (here about as wide as the Thames as it flows through London), a daily event with much song and ceremonial to bless the sacred ‘Ganga’. Colourful, chaotic, and mildly amusing to observe several young western women having their spiritual moment accompanied by ageing ‘sadhus’ (holy men) who they’d paired up with…hum.
Rishikesh is typical ‘small town’ India, i.e. it’s quite big, has a lot of noisy traffic, and the usual retail freneticism. There’s no real hassle from beggars or street traders, and the usual tourist tat everywhere, but I do recommend the excellent little bookshop next to the German Bakery situated above the suspension bridge to the ghats where aarti is celebrated nightly.
We also took a couple of evening walks along the banks of the Ganges, and, somewhat embarrassingly, I found myself unwittingly involved in a private aarti for our little group, which had me standing in prayer mode for what seemed like an eternity, intermittently throwing sweets and flowers into the Ganges before waving candles over the river and having a red tilak daubed on my forehead. 

Aarti on the Ganges
Meeting the locals in Rishikesh
Absolutely not for me. I’ve never been a devotional type but I resolved to ‘go with the moment’, watching the fish rise to feed on the evening flush of insects, the fading light on the surrounding hills, the ancient sound from the holy man’s conch shell horn echoing off them, and a realisation that this was actually a great privilege being bestowed upon us, albeit much to the amusement of local children who gathered to watch us.
And it was this, and another visit, this time to visit the meditation cave said to have been used by the sage Vasishtha, teacher of Lord Rama. A good spot, a little further up the Ganges Valley, but I singularly failed to feel the ‘energy’ in the cave that all of my peers did.

Site of Vasishtha's meditation cave
This created a bit of rebellion in me. I’ve always thought there must be something more to life, always wondered why I’ve never felt truly content despite having a good family life and good career throughout my time on this planet so far, but all this ritual, unquestioned by so many western ‘seekers’, does nothing for me.
I do get ‘something’ from being in the mountains, I can sense ‘something’ when I enter a cathedral somewhere in Europe or listen to the chant of monks in a Tibetan monastery, but religious ceremonial, oft observed sanctimony, unthinking reverence to a guru, working towards finding Atman or ‘enlightenment’ is just too much for me, it repels rather than attracts.
So, I needed an escape, if just for a day, taking myself off to Dehra Dun to the second largest enclave of Tibetan refugees in India (Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama being the biggest), a journey of about 50km taking about 75 minutes.

Stupa at Mindrolling Monastery, Dehra Dun
Mindrolling Monastery
Mindrolling Monastery
I spent a very pleasant hour at the Mindrolling monastery, founded in 1965 by the Khoshen Rinpoche (originally established in Tibet in the Drachi Valley), first visiting the stupa, one of the largest in the world at 185’ high. Both inside and out were immaculately maintained and clean, in complete contrast to modern India outside the walls. I was fortunate enough to catch about a hundred or so monks learning their scriptures together in the main hall of the stupa, the session occasionally punctuated by the banging of drums and blasting of the huge horns called Tongchen, creating a discordance that only the Tibetans know how to create. I then visited the main monastery, a serene setting for a lone monk chanting his own prayers, again a building in pristine condition.
Then we were off to find the Songtsen Library and Kagyu College, part of the Drikung Kagyu Institute established by Drikung Kyabgan Chetsang, the 27th head of the Drikung Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. It took some finding, about 15km N.E. from the centre of Dehra Dun, and we only found it when we were assisted by a very affable traffic police inspector who led us the last few kms on his motorbike…great service!

Kagyu College
Songtsen Library
Well, actually, not quite…what he had led us to was the Drikung Samtenling, a nunnery! And certainly off limits to western males! A little backtracking took us to our objective (my driver very patient as I persisted…). This is a well funded institution, set up to continue with the study and promulgation of Tibetan Buddhism, with benefactors from Germany and Taiwan named on a couple of plaques. The buildings were beautiful and set in Zen-like gardens with the nearby foothills as a backdrop, a serene setting indeed.
I was the only visitor, and helpfully accompanied by a monk in his late 20s who had himself fled from Chinese oppression by crossing the mountain border at night.
Importantly, this visit helped me codify my rather inconsistent thinking about what may lie beyond normal everyday life. I think I am starting to understand my keen interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Let me try to explain.
Firstly, Buddhism is not a religion. It’s a set of attitudes and values for life which I certainly identify with. Recognising that ‘all life is impermanent’, that accepting change as the only constant in life is the only way to achieve happiness. Compassion to all sentient beings another example. All things in moderation is another. However, avoidance of stimulants I might struggle with, given my love of beer and pubs! And I’ve yet to get my head around the concept of reincarnation…
But Tibetan Buddhism?
Well, first and foremost, I feel very strongly that these ancient traditions need to be defended against China’s attempts to ‘integrate’ Tibet, i.e. eradicate Tibetan history and culture. Secondly, it is one of the richest traditions I have observed on my travels around the world, and you cannot fail to be moved by the spirituality of the Tibetans you meet in the country itself, in Nepal and India. And, intellectually, it’s fascinatingly impenetrable to most westerners.
So, if Buddhism is an approach to the way you live your life, Tibetan Buddhism is more of an academic challenge and one fuelled by a strong urge to defend its future given the Chinese ‘master plan’ for the Tibetan people. Such oppression infuriates me.
But let’s get back to ashram life.
It’s been a useful but probably ‘one-off’ experience for me. I’ve learnt a lot, except how to sit still for more than 25 minutes (go on, you try it!), met some well-meaning people and some excellent scholars, but initiations, gurus, and assorted ceremonials leave me cold.
The intellectual challenge has been good, the physical yoga practice rigorous and professional, and I’ve even enjoyed singing along with the prayers in Sanskrit – but then those of you who know me will know that I’ve always had obscure tastes in music, with a heavy emphasis on ‘chill’, ranging from Gregorian chant, Punjabi wedding anthems, to contemporary electronica – just ask my wife what she thinks of my iPod collection!
It is noteworthy that the ashram is sponsoring a scientific project to map the effects of meditation on human physiology and its impact on brain activity. Check out www.ahymsin.org for more on this.

Yogis at Kunjapuri
And let’s not decry yogic philosophy. Yoga is a life path, it is certainly more than the physical aspect that most people associate yoga with, and the underlying ethics and approach to life proffered in the texts of Patanjali and others are a good basis for living in the here and now. Moreover, there is substantial synchronicity with the underlying precepts of Buddhism and no compulsion ‘to believe’. Like Buddhism, it invites you to ‘come sit’ and adopt a questioning approach to all that you read or are taught. It does not want ‘blind faith’, so warrants my respect in equal measure.
For certain, time in a place like this does give you proper space to reflect on things, and not just on the normal attachments we have in everyday life. It certainly has helped me to start to clarify my thinking in respect of finding a deeper level of contentment with my lot.
So, folks, caution, if you’ve ever felt the need to retreat. I’m glad I have been there, it’s a distinctive experience, and I’ve seen it affect some more spiritually attuned people in quite different ways…a sudden release of emotions over the recent loss of loved ones, for example, and the polarising aspect on some people’s personalities when they’re involved in deeper introspection. My reaction to this ashram experience was firstly benign acceptance (‘go with the flow’), then ‘what am I doing here?’, then rebellion, almost rejection, then a calmer, ‘let’s take stock and really think about all this’, but I needed to get outside to trigger that.
I write this on the penultimate day in the ashram, so the experience is still live, but I’m now ready to move on, both in the next stage of my journey in India, and into the next phase of my life too.
Rather like this morning’s visit to view sunrise over the Indian Himalaya from the Kanjapuri Shakti temple at 1600m. An uplifting breakthrough of the sun over the mountains on the distant horizon, a glimpse of the past in the temple setting and the shadow our hill projected westwards from our vantage point, a glimpse of the future looking far north to the snow capped summits of the peaks above Kedarnath, and the glow of contentment right here and now feeling the warmth of the sun as it slowly gains ascendancy in the sky.
Om shanti. 

View from Kanjapuri Shakti temple
Friday/Saturday 1-2 April

Departure day, spent in the usual ashram routine, plus a lesson on contemplative walking again, a great technique and certainly easier than sitting meditation! Took some pictures of wild cannabis that grows as a weed on the roadsides around here, and with the rest of our group, departed late evening for Haridwar and Delhi, after some fond farewells to the ashram staff.
Haridwar station was interesting. More people here were horizontal. Either waiting for a train, so took a nap in the car park, station foyer or platform, or homeless, so kipped down anyway. Got the sleeper train to Delhi, and got about three hours sleep before the train reached New Delhi station at about 0530. Bid farewell to my ashram companions and then swiftly off to a hotel near the airport for a freshen-up and breakfast (bacon & eggs…yum) and the mid morning flight on Air India to Patna, just over a hours flying eastwards.
An uneventful flight, hazy cloud all the way, crossing over the meandering Ganges before landing at Patna’s small airport and met by my guide and driver.
This is the state of Bihar. One of the poorer Indian states and famed for its criminality (speciality, kidnapping) in recent years. But, a new local government chief and some investment in infrastructure (the Japanese helping to fund the new road we’re now on), and crime rates have dropped. It’s about 125km to Bodh Gaya, my destination for today, and the road busy in places, mainly agricultural traffic now, as we’re passing through farming areas. A lot of subsistence farming here, but the soil is good and enables crop rotation three times a year: wheat, dhal and rice, dependent on the season.
It’s much hotter here than Delhi, about 34 degrees this afternoon, and it will rise to mid-40s in the summer, with increased humidity as the monsoon hits.
You can see the poverty around here. Less cars, more horse drawn vehicles, and battered old tractors. The land is flat, with many palm trees (todhi and dade)  and some mango breaking the monotony of the many acres of wheat.
We passed through Taregan, filthy and with swarms of flies around the traders stools, but my guide told me that this is the place all the astronomers flocked to for a recent eclipse event. Good luck to them! And it was with some trepidation when we passed through Jahanebad…my guide informing me that this was the kidnap capital of Bihar, and that it was probably ‘only just OK’ to pass through this area at night. Thankfully, this town is not on my return route to Patna.
Reaching Gaya, the streets were full of men watching India beat Sri Lanka in the World Cup cricket on public TV screens, and then 20 minutes later we reached our objective, Bodh Gaya, the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists worldwide, the location of Buddha’s enlightenment.
Dropping bags off at the comfortable and efficient Royal Residency hotel (Japanese owned), we made our visit to the Mahabodi Temple and the famous Bodhi Tree, where it is said that Buddha meditated for three days before attaining enlightenment. It was now 37 degrees in the late afternoon, and we found the site thronged with Buddhists from Thailand, Burma and other parts of India.

Bodh Gaya
The Bodhi Tree, site of Buddha's Enlightenment

Stumpy at Bodh Gaya
Mahabodhi Temple
An amazing place, the Bodhi tree located immediately behind the temple, with the Vajrasana or ‘Diamond Throne’ located on the spot where the Buddha sat. The tree itself is derived from a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, itself grown from a sapling of the original tree (it’s a long story, so I won’t go into to it here). The temple was constructed by Emperor Ashoka in 2 BCE, and further developed during the Gupta era, although the site was sacked many times by Muslims, and after the demise of Buddhism in India, the temple eventually became buried until it was finally excavated by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1883.
This whole area is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a magical place to visit.
Monks and nuns dressed according to their various traditions, groups chanting the sutras around the temple walls, the chant of a Tibetan monk inside the small inner sanctum of the main temple, and others just sitting in quiet contemplation, despite the early evening cacophony of roosting sparrows, minahs and crows.
There were plenty of people visiting the temple, but at nowhere near the levels during the ‘cooler’ winter months. There is now an international airport just south of Gaya, and this is used by pilgrims coming in from Thailand, China, Burma and Japan. A lot easier than the route I’ve taken…

Sunday 3 April

An early start to visit the many temples in Bodh Gaya, first the nearby Tibetan (Karma/Kagyu order) temple, followed by the Japanese Indosan Nipponji temple, and the truly excellent Bhutanese temple, one of the finest I’ve seen, with relief murals of events from the life of Buddha adorning the walls and intricate mandalas on the ceiling, all in pristine condition.

Giant Buddha in Bodh Gaya

Then on to see the Thai and Chinese temples, taking in a giant Buddha statue en route, 25m high and surrounded by statues of his principle early disciples.
Before returning to the main site, we then drove out of town a little to visit a small temple built to commemorate the location (the village of Bakrour)  where Sujata is said to have offered sustenance to Buddha (then Siddharta), after his prolonged period of asceticism, before he crossed the nearby river to sit under the Bodhi tree. There were lots of beggars here, mainly kids from the local farms, and I donated a little to one of their teachers who run a free school for them.

Tibetan Buddhist temple, Bodh Gaya

Bhutanese temple interior

Back to the Mahabodhi Temple, quieter this morning, and we visited the same spots, enjoying the many stupas in the gardens surrounding the main temple, the Muchalinda Lake, in the middle of which is a figure of the Buddha elevated within a raga, giant snake.

Around the Mahabodhi Temple

After enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have spent a further seven weeks meditating at various points around the Bodhi tree, so we visited each of these in turn, before moving on.
Bought two mala (prayer beads), one made from rudrakachh and the other from carved bodhi wood, before a visit to the Archaeological Museum, home to some original pillars from the Ashoka era and many Buddha and bodhisattva statues and figurines dating to 9-10 century AD. Not as good as the museum at Sarnath, but worth a look.
It seemed hotter today, some high cloud cover increasing humidity, so escaped back to the hotel for some lunch before setting out for our next objective, Rajgir, about 2 hours drive north eastwards. Rajgir is set amidst low limestone hills and is the location that the Buddha meditated for long periods both before and after enlightenment, a spot called Vulture Peak.
This is a very poor area, and it’s interesting to note the population statistics, the male/female ratio just 1000:889, usually a sign of the practice of female infanticide, a problem still endemic in India today. Passed through farmland again and some really grotty towns, and finally reached Rajgir mid afternoon. 

Rajgir translates as ‘royal house’ and was originally the first capital of Magadha, one of the first major states of India, although the capital subsequently moved to Pataliputra, close to Patna. The area is sacred to Buddhists and Jains alike, and there are also some significant points of pilgrimage for Hindus too as this area features heavily in the epic Mahabharata.
Our first visit was to the giant stupa on one on the hills, the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, and nearby Japanese temple, both accessed by a chairlift (pretty basic single seaters) costing 40 INR, expensive for many locals, who then opt to walk up a well engineered path instead, a climb of about 300m). From here you can see all of the surrounding area, accompanied by the regular beat of a taiko drum in the Japanese temple. Significantly, you can look down to Vulture Peak and see Buddha’s meditation spot.

Vishwa Shanti Stupa above Rajgir
To reach Vulture Peak (Griddhkuta), it’s a 20 minute walk downhill along a newly constructed and well-graded path), and it’s a spot rarely visited by the hordes of local visitors for whom the chairlift is the only way up or down. So we had the spot to ourselves for much of the time, passing six meditation caves said to have been used by his disciples (care: large scorpions inhabit these) and enjoying the elevated views over the surrounding limestone country, with thunder rumbling in the distance adding to the atmosphere of this sacred spot. This is where Buddha delivered his second sermon, the Heart Sutra. One for the memory bank…

Vulture Peak, site of Buddha's second sermon

Back to the hotel for early dinner (Japanese run hotel called Indo Hokke…so tempura and noodles for a change) and turned in early.

Monday 4 April

Some more time spent in Rajgir, a scruffy little town with horse drawn carriages the main form of public transport for locals and tourists alike. Got to the Srataparna Cave just ahead of two coach loads of Sri Lankan visitors. This is the site of the ‘First Council’ of Buddhists, convened shortly after Buddha’s passing, held under the leadership of Maha Kassapa. It is also an important site for the Jain, as Lord Mahavira spent 14 years of his life in this area.
Moving on, we visited the jail in which King Bimbisara was kept until his death by his son Ajatashatru, the latter having been mislead about his father by Devadatta (legend has it that he set two elephants on Buddha too, only to be cowed by his smiling gaze). We visited the site where Vishnu’s chariot was said to have drawn up, with some 5,000 year old text in the rock to mark the occasion, this time swamped by a tour group from Burma.
Back in Rajgir, we visited the hot water spring baths of Brahmakund, where large numbers of the local population were either washing clothes or themselves. I didn’t like this place as there was an ‘edge’ to it, not helped by a local police officer with a staff asking for money for his (unnecessary) protection. Glad to move on from here.
A short walk then took us into the Venu Vena (my guide insisting that it should be Velu Vena), a royal park of Bimbisara’s time and one in which the Buddha regularly bathed and meditated, eventually converting Bimbisara’s wife Khemma, a woman of great beauty. A nice, peaceful respite from a grubby little town.
Then across well ordered wheat country to reach Nalanda, about 15km away to the north east. This is the site of an ancient centre of higher learning, one of the original universities, and home to 10,000 students in its heyday. The site is huge, housing twelve monasteries, large Buddhist temples and the extensive supporting infrastructure, bathhouses, kitchens and foundries etc.
It rose to prominence during the Gupta and Pala eras, but was destroyed in 1193 by Turkic Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji, bonfires of books taking three months to burn. Most of the teachers and students were murdered too.

The site is managed quite well by the Archaeological Survey of India, and the nearby Museum has some interesting artefacts, including some of the original seals of the university. Plans are now underway to create a new university close to this site.

Tuesday 5 April 

Final day in Patna. This is not a city blessed with any charm, the noisy, chaotic capital of Bihar, with truly horrible traffic and the worst driving standards I’ve ever seen.
This was, unbelievably, the capital of the Mauryan Empire (321 to 185 BC), seat of Chandragupta, Bindusara and Ashoka. The original capital Patliputra was a complex of palaces alongside the Ganges, but has now been consigned to a humble park, cut off from the river by later urban development, and now showing little evidence of its past greatness (an Ashoka pillar laying on its side the ‘highlight’), so justified a quick photo stop only.
Shortly afterwards we climbed the 140 steps to the top of the Golghar, a 1950’s grain silo that gives views over Patna and the Ganges floodplain to the north.
Finally, a visit to the externally impressive Patna Museum. Internally much less impressive, with many exhibits but poorly lit and captioned. If you pay an extra 200 INR, an official will unlock the door to a special Buddha section housing a small soapstone casket containing the some of the ashes of Buddha, excavated from a stupa in Vaisali.
There was a good selection of Buddhist, Brahmanic and Jain statues in stone and bronze, exhibits from the Mauryan period, and a large collection of Tibetan thangkas, albeit not in great condition.
A good lunch at the Chanakya Hotel in the centre of town, before a smooth Kingfisher flight of about 90 minutes back to Delhi.
Next morning, early flight home on BA.

 © Colin Stump, April 2011

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